Columbia University students protest the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Photo: Channtal Fleischfresser.
Thousands of students flooded Columbia University’s Low Plaza on Monday to participate in the Columbia Coalition Forum, a Columbia/Barnard Hillel-led protest and debate of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the university.
The Columbia Coalition, an ad-hoc group of students representing dozens of organizations on campus united in opposition to Ahmadinejad, created the forum as a way to provide an appropriate space for voices to be heard while maintaining peace and decorum on campus.
“We recognized that with such a controversial figure coming to campus, many students were going to want to have their voice heard,” said Ariela Rosenburg, co-founder of the Columbia Coalition and a junior at Columbia University. “Rather than battle for the same protest permits, limited space, and cooperation from the university, the forum created the structure and safe space needed for freedom of expression.”
In addition to coordinating 10-minute long speeches allotted to approximately 25 campus groups and individuals--including Columbia/Barnard Hillel President Josh Rosner; Columbia Queer Alliance; the Columbia Iranian Students Association and Lionpac, Columbia’s pro-Israel student group--Columbia Coalition organized live feeds of Ahmadinejad’s early afternoon presentation on the East-South Lawn of the university, a space adjacent to Low Plaza.
“The forum was a display of incredible maturity on the part of Columbia students,” said Rosenburg. “Messages were heard more clearly because students were actually listening to one another rather than engaging in back and forth picketing.”
The forum was the culminating event of a series of actions taken by the Columbia Jewish community in response to Ahmadinejad’s visit.
Upon the unofficial announcement of the invitation, presidents of Columbia University student organizations, under the leadership of Rosner, issued a statement criticizing the university for failing to include students in the decision to invite Ahmadinejad to campus.
Days before the scheduled visit, Hillel students participated in a blitz campaign, papering the walls and sidewalks of the university with Ahmadinejad quotes such as one from 2005 stating that anyone who recognizes Israel “will burn in the fire of Islamic nation’s fury.”
On Sunday, more the 50 Columbia students participated in Israel on Campus Coalition- run workshops to learn about the threat posed by the Iranian regime and some of the ways they could take action to oppose it.
Six member organizations of the ICC, (ZOA, AIPAC, URJ/KESHER, Aish HaTorah/Hasbara Fellowships, JCPA and StandWithUs) provided speakers and staff to facilitate the workshops. Topics included an analysis of Iran, human rights abuses in Iran, coalition building and lobbying. Students also viewed a 60 Minutes interview with Ahmadinejad.
“After finishing our first row of posters on the ground, we were approached by some passersby who inquired as to the purpose of our cause. We easily used the facts that we learned in the workshops as well as the 60 Minutes interview to defend ourselves and our protest,” wrote Columbia freshmen Yoni Grossman-Boder, Sam Kerbel and Adi Segal in an e-mail expressing gratitude for the workshops.
“The ICC team is proud to have been a part of the response to Ahmanidejad’s appearance at Columbia and we look forward to continuing our pro-active and positive Israel agenda on campus throughout the academic year,” said Raina Goldberg, assistant director for the Israel on Campus Coalition.
In another extension of Hillel’s protest to Ahmadinejad’s visit, Rosner joined elected officials, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and other supporters of Israel, as a speaker at a pre-speech rally that took place outside of the United Nations early Monday afternoon.
“Josh spoke boldly and forcefully about the outrage of a distinguished university like his own extending an invitation and giving a platform to spew his hatred,” said Hillel’s International Board of Governors member Michael Granoff. “Josh’s remarks were met with great enthusiasm by the crowd.”
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